I went to a great advocacy training (how to lobby your elected officials) over the weekend, and thought I would share a few important nuggets of what I learned. (Not a substitute for the actual advocacy training, which was awesome! Find one in your city!)
1. Your elected representatives are totally available to you. Their local district offices, especially, are often empty and very willing to have meetings with their constituents - that’s you. You can and should develop a relationship with your elected representatives and their staffers over the next few years - which will be a marathon, not a sprint. This is going to be the best long-term way to use our democracy and maximize your influence in it (short of running for office yourself!). It’s because of building respectful, trusting relationships that staffers may come to rely upon you for information and see you as a resource when issues they know you’re interested in come up. Eventually they may be calling YOU to ask what you think before considering legislation related to an issue that you’ve been discussing with them!
2. We’ve all read that series of tweets from a congressional staffer saying that phone calls are more effective than emails. Totally true. But those are what’s called “tally” phone calls. They are probably being answered by an intern. They are important, but if you’re trying to build a relationship with your elected official and their staff, you can also call and ask to talk with the staffer assigned to that issue. If there isn’t one, at the very least there’s a staffer assigned to “constituent issues” - ask for that person. That staffer is going to be your new best friend!
3. Go to your elected representative’s website. Read their bio and look at their “issues” page. You will find out the issues they really care about. Do they overlap with the issues you care about? That’s your sweet spot. You need to meet them where they are.
4. On their website, you will also find out what committees your elected official is on, plus subcommittees. This is where they have the most influence. Find out what that committee does. Are they the chair, or the ranking member? Even more influential. Again, meet them where they are. If your congressperson is the chair of the Energy subcommittee, that’s a great person to lobby about environmental issues.
5. Caucuses are less important but still indicate where the elected official has interest, though not necessarily where they have responsibility. A big exception, however, is anywhere a Member took a leadership position, by either founding/co-founding or chairing/co-chairing a caucus. In that case, that probably IS an area where they have influence. Caucuses are also a great way to hold folks accountable for what they SHOULD care about: “hey, you’re a member of the Congressional Algae Caucus (that’s a real thing), I would expect you to care about rising levels of acid in our seawater!”
6. While you’re at the website, sign up for your elected representative’s newsletter. You will find out about their town hall meetings. Attend, and maybe bring a friend/neighbor who looks different than you.
7. What about the issues that are at the top of your list, but your elected officials don’t seem to care much about them? Find out the Senate and House committees in charge of those issues. The chair and ranking member are answerable to all Americans, not only the ones who are their direct constituents. A member of the committee who’s in your state is also answerable to you.
8. I thought that if I’m a Democrat and my representative is a Democrat, there’s no point in reaching out because they already agree with me. Not true. Your visible support of their actions makes it more likely for them to go out on a political limb for your mutual interests. And there are many things you can ask them to do:
9. Things you can ask your elected officials to do include: Vote on specific legislation; sponsor or cosponsor legislation; make a statement about an issue; speak out more forcefully about an issue; talk to another elected official they’re close to about the issue; talk to their co-committee members about the issue.
10. You can look up bills at congress.gov to find out who’s sponsoring/co-sponsoring, what committee is currently considering it (see #7 for whom to lobby on a committee - don’t just call all the members), etc.
11. Partnering with a local organization for both policy support and clout is very important. A nonprofit already working on an issue should be able to help you with policy points, even if they aren’t able to join you in organizing/attending a meeting - call them up and ask. But working with a community group can also do a lot of good - a synagogue, school, church, community center, rotary club, whatever. You want to have the power of a network behind you, because your elected officials need to know that YOU are influential in your community.
12. Nonprofits are not all the same. Some, like the Sierra Club, are 501c3 organizations. Donations to them are tax-deductible, and they can only spend 5% of their budget on lobbying elected officials, i.e. advocacy. Others, like the Citizens Climate Lobby, are 501c4 organizations that are focused on advocacy. Donations to them are not tax-deductible. Both have a purpose, and 501c3s often have an advocacy arm. If you find an organization working on an issue you care about and you haven’t heard of them, call them up and ask some hard questions about their impact before you commit to volunteering with them or representing them to your elected official.
13. If you’re interested in learning more about how best to lobby your elected officials regarding a certain issue you care about, call up an organization that’s already doing work on that issue and say “I’m interested in building a relationship with my elected officials regarding this issue. Do you have materials that could help me? Do you offer advocacy training for your volunteers? Do you have other interested people in my area with whom I could be matched up?”
14. In preparation for meeting with your elected officials, think about how you can get personal and therefore memorable. Think deeply about one issue you care very much about - what personal thing makes you care about that issue? We did a great exercise in the advocacy training - we had a minute to write down our personal reasons for connecting with a certain issue, and then take 2 minutes to tell them to another person. That person then had to say “That’s so interesting! Tell me more about [one compelling part that stood out].” So then we had to dig deeper and tell them more, and we repeated the process twice. By the end, we had dug deeply and come up with a very personal, much more compelling and memorable pitch than we had in the beginning.
15. Once you schedule your meeting: a) Send the elected official or the staffer a summary of your presentation at least a day before. Do NOT blindside them; b) Invite someone who is directly affected by your issue, such as a senior citizen dependent upon Medicare if you’re talking about Medicare, c) Ask an organization already working on this issue to supply you with talking points, d) Prepare a short pitch, knowing that you have 10-30 minutes total, including your personal connection to the issue, maybe also asking the elected official about THEIR personal connection to the issue, r) Prepare two copies of any materials you bring and give one to the elected official and one to the staffer, e) Talk about a maximum of 2 issues and 3 policy asks total, something that can fit on one sheet of paper, f) Leave all your “asks” on that one sheet of paper and give a copy each to your elected official and the staffer at the end, g) You don’t have to be an expert on the issue; it’s enough to be a constituent who’s passionate about it. If you don’t know a fact, say so and offer to find out and follow up with the staffer later (and then do it!). It’s a great excuse for a follow up!
16. Know that at least one staff member will be there, possibly in addition to your elected official, possibly by themselves. It’s okay if it’s by themselves - they are awesome, informed on your issue, and influential. When you take a photo at the end, which you should absolutely do and post/tag it everywhere, make sure you include the staffer.
17. Follow up a LOT. Every week is good.
18. There is so much work to do over the next few years, and it’s easy to get overwhelmed. That’s why we ALL are going to have to jump in and do our part. Pick one or two or three issues that are the most important to you and concentrate on those. You’ll be less overwhelmed, and more motivated to follow through for the long haul. Others will have to pick up the slack on the rest. We’re going to need all the help we can get.